Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Censor This, Senator
WASHINGTON, October 21, 1997 --
The relentless campaign of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to impose a rating system on broadcast television is a case study in destructive futility. For three weeks now, all major broadcast and cable networks except NBC and Black Entertainment Television (BET) have supplied parental warnings of sexual content, violence, and strong language before each program. NBC, the only broadcast holdout, has retained an age-based rating system. That makes Senator McCain mad.
McCain is so angry, in fact, that he has threatened to use the FCC to pull the plug on any NBC station not implementing his rating plan of choice.1 While his threat is perfectly legal under the Communications Act of l934, which nationalized the broadcast radio spectrum, it is an incredibly draconian move for such an inane goal. Simply put, McCain is guilty of abusing government power.
McCain justifies his position by claiming he is supporting "the parental right to safeguard the interests of their children."2 This is nonsense, of course, since he is not really supporting a right of parents, but abdicating their responsibility and transferring it to broadcasters. Even if we embrace the Senator's premise, however, it is difficult to accept the momentousness of his plan. His argument with NBC is that their age-based rating system isn't informative enough and doesn't conform to a widespread standard.
NBC, however, isn't getting drowsy. The network's executives were so spooked by the Senator's threat that they responded by screaming "First Amendment" at the top of their lungs.
"In my 20 years of broadcasting, I have never been more afraid than I have been of the ratings issue," warned NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield.3
Littlefield's predictions of a government takeover of content are overblown. While it is theoretically possible that do-gooder Senators and Vice Presidents could impose severe controls on broadcast television, cable television is outside their reach. With direct broadcast television and internet-based video now available, the sector of the market within McCain's regulatory grasp is shrinking daily. The government censor, though alive and well, is increasingly irrelevant.
Perhaps the best thing that could happen in this confrontation would be for McCain to succeed in shutting down NBC's broadcast stations. The network could continue to provide content to most of its viewing audience via cable, and it would be liberated from the specter of government interference. The entire episode would appear so ludicrous that it would call into question the existence of such arbitrary government power. And it's the mere existence of this power that should be the real controversy.
For over 60 years, the national networks have endured an outdated New Deal legal structure that subjugates broadcast media in ways constitutionally unthinkable for paper and wire media. The 1930s' argument that broadcast transmissions are somehow different, because the signals "invade" peoples' homes is obsolete. Encryption technology, already in place for direct broadcast satellite systems, can be used for conventional ground transmitters as well, making signals invisible to household receivers. In today's digital age, the practical differences between broadcast, print, and cable are insignificant.
The law, however, has failed to keep up with technology. McCain's initiative shows that the gap is growing. The senator's new centrally-imposed rating system uses industrial age techniques to solve an information age problem. Existing technology, if implemented properly, can allow individual parents to tailor television blocking software to their own prudish outlook. This progressive vision, however, is clearly beyond McCain's imagination.
While the NBC executives' rhetoric is overblown, they are absolutely correct that McCain is promoting government censorship. His position is so outrageous -- even when of such a limited scope -- that its mere existence threatens to foul a proud American tradition of free-expression. His willingness to soil this tradition for a futile and inane cause is absolutely shameful.